Released thirty-five years ago, Michael Mann’s Thief was an auspicious debut from an American filmmaker. Mann had actually directed a television film two years prior, but Thief represents the true start of his feature film oeuvre. The film’s style, its use of color and light, and its influential electronic score all set the template for Mann’s subsequent films, as well as many films of the 1980s.
Mann had originally considered adapting John Seybold’s The Home Invaders: Confessions of a Cat Burglar, a memoir of Seybold’s life as a professional thief and home invader, but ultimately chose to drop the project and write a new film about a thief. However, he was obligated to list the book as source material, despite there being absolutely nothing in the film related to the book.
James Caan stars as Frank, the titular thief. Caan was a strange choice, an actor who had made a name for himself with his fiery role in The Godfather, but who had failed to find similarly meaty roles through the rest of the 1970s. Thief seems to have energized him, and some of the fire he had as Sonny Corleone can be found in his performance as Frank. Frank has spent his childhood in state-run homes, followed by over a decade in prison, where he was mentored by Okla (Willie Nelson), an older convict and the closest thing he has to a father. Now out of prison a few years, Frank runs a bar and car dealership to conceal his career as a thief.
Frank’s career as a thief is complicated when Leo (Robert Prosky), an organized crime boss, makes him a business offer: Leo’s organization will find scores for Frank, take care of all the planning, and then just leave Frank to carry out the robbery. . .
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